The (Feminist) Practice of Everyday Life: Suzanne Lacy in conversation with Dominik Czechowski

Image: Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and In Rage, 1977–1978 © Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Alongside our current exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works From the Verbund Collection, the new issue of our quarterly publication Loose Associations takes feminism as its subject. In this interview – which is available along with other writing and images in the publication via our shop – artist Suzanne Lacy considers the past, and the future, of feminist art practice.

Dominik Czechowski: How would you define feminist art practice then – and now?

Suzanne Lacy: It is difficult to define a single type of feminist art practice, except to say that all of the various ways feminist artists make art revolve around a concern with gender and power, whether that be identity based or socio-political. At the beginning of the performance art movement in the late 60s the gendered body in its anatomy, its movements and rhythms, its political and social positioning, was an obvious starting point for explorations that continue today. I suppose that is why so many of us who now work in public started with performance. As a time based media, one where the artist is simultaneously subject and object, the opportunity to develop complex narratives is still attractive to feminists.

Like many artists of my generation I started with the body as site, and used performance art to explore everything from organ transplantation to gender violence. I began to explore the implications of the female body in public settings, where knowledge was distributed and the power to make legal changes existed. This was important in the 70s when there were still widely accepted practices, reinforced by laws, that denied gender justice. For instance, in California it was not until the early 70s that it became illegal to rape your wife. Public information about violence was deeply obscured by secrecy and mythologies, many of which still exist as media narratives. The role of art in this media and social terrain was closely aligned with a general feminist agenda to expose women’s experiences – their truths – in public manners.

On many issues concerning gender, 70s artists were as active as journalists and writers. I think that has changed, at least with violence against women. Global activists and journalists are now exposing, with the aid of social media, injustices at a rate far faster than artists. There are certainly artists working in social injustice all over the world who are bringing to light new information, but I don’t see it as the primary role of artists today. I think our role is less about revealing issues, and more about exploring forms of participation and citizenship.

DC: Your work of 1977, In Mourning and In Rage, was conceived as a press event in the form of a public media performance on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. What were you trying to convey and why did you use this mode of address?

SL: My colleague Leslie Labowitz Starus and I were attempting to rewrite a narrative that was common in media coverage of violence against women, essentially a ‘Jack the Ripper’ story. A killer had been driven mad by his promiscuous mother (often a prostitute), and begins to rape and murder prostitutes. This inevitably leads to – certainly in this case – untrue storylines that the media pursues: he had a horrible life, and a particularly tormented relationship with a bad mother (her fault). She, the victim, is a prostitute or loose woman who deserves to die.

It turned out not to be true in the ‘Hillside Strangler’ case. It was also not one man but two. Kenneth Bianchi, the leader of the duo, was a consummate consumer of pornography as an adolescent, a potential causative factor not seen as significant as the Ripper narrative. While the first victim was indeed a more easily available target – a prostitute – the killers became increasingly bold, taking children and a high school prom queen. The cultural myths are so strong in these storylines that the narrative is difficult to shift. We wanted to challenge this plot as it was being covered in local media, as well as the endemic secondary narrative of women’s helplessness: photographs of women being sprayed with mace and carrying paring knives in their purses. Our ‘story’ would connect the varying forms of violence as a cultural zeitgeist supporting gender violence, from joke, to advertising, to wife abuse, to rape, and so on. It would also present a portrait of women in both mourning and rage, standing together rather than isolated.

Of course, while this project operated with a good deal of carefully strategised media coverage, we weren’t naïve enough to think it was going to change ongoing storylines. But we did introduce a level of criticality into both local media with whom we subsequently worked, and in the arts.

DC: How would you do it differently today – especially as the landscape and channels of communication have changed so radically and the means of expression and acts of violence towards women have also expanded, becoming more insidious?

SL: The question is complex: forming a true picture of the scale, gravity, and interconnectivities of global violence against women is a work in progress. In many cases so little is really known that we are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It is difficult to know if rape incidents in Los Angeles are increasing (according to reports of college campus violence and teen dating statistics) or decreasing (according to police reports). The challenge isn’t just uncovering kinds and incidences of violence, but in forming a comprehensive picture of how the world is impacted, in studies ranging from women’s use of medical care to urbanisation in third world countries. Violence against women in public transportation in Ecuador, for example, impacts family poverty.

52_pressimage-feministag-l-slacy-and-llabowitz-in-mourning-and-in-rage-1977-1978

Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and In Rage, 1977–1978 © Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

It is true that social media is definitely entering the picture, from widely available pornography to trolling and swatting. But I would question your statement that violence has become more insidious via the internet. Before sex-violent internet porn there were blue movies, and before that audiotapes of sex-violent murders of children. Violence seems to progress along with technology. The question is not the technology, I think, but are we getting closer to a global analysis of how power sustained through forms of violence, creating deep inequities? I think that is the feminist project.

DC: Do you think art offered feminist artists an apparatus that other forms (for example writing) could not?

SL: Yes, of course. First our sophistication, as artists, in the analysis of images, and the creation of them adds greatly to the picture of violence as expressed through media narratives. Second, as we experimented with new and de-materialised art forms, it paved the way to exploring art and activism. As performance artists we were interested in nuances of embodiment and experience, so we could combine consciousness-raising subjectivity with public pedagogy. One of the things artists are good at is complexity, and mixing forms of theoretical thinking with visual and temporal imagery.

DC: Can you talk a bit about the roots and ideas behind social practice and how you think your work back then might have informed its changing forms? And, importantly, where do we go from here?

Art history selects, constrains and amplifies certain practices over others, and this is the case for the current trend of ‘social practice’. Early feminist art tends to be seen in with respect only to that ‘genre’ and has been particularly focused on gendered bodies. In the service of ideas of equity, however, many early feminist artists, like Mierle Laderman Ukeles for example, actually paved the way for a more inclusive public and community-based practice. Artists like myself, Martha Rosler, Leslie Labowitz, Ulrike Rosenbach, Eleanor Antin and Lynn Hershman (and many others) were operating in the same intellectual milieu as Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, Lucy Lippard et al and were concerned with dematerialising art, expanding audiences, working within popular culture and utilising theories from social science. It was a period of tremendous experimentation and feminists were an integral, not separate, part of that. Looking at their strategies of practice challenging dominant underlying forms of power and empowerment – for instance establishing ‘platforms’ to query issues from perspectives between widely diverse public actors outside the artworld, or engaging museum-goers quite directly in the production of the art, prioritising individual experience in a political context, grassroots organising, tactical interventions into media, and radical forms of pedagogy – the case can be made that social practice indeed has deep roots in the work of 70s era feminist artists.

We are living in yet another moment of political uprising, with strong forces pulling in different and contradictory directions. And within this context of continual war, continual violence against women, never-ending racial and class injustice, there are again many ideas coming to the fore. Some are finding their way into the art world at a moment when Black Lives Matter might be considered an activist art form. How do we decide that, and based on what criteria? Self-selection of the people involved? The scale of their actions? Whether their actions are framed by art theorists? I happen to know that at least one of the original women founders – Patrisse Cullors – is trained as an artist and sees herself in that camp. But clearly this loose knit and well-branded coalition has much to teach us about the power of art to make social change.

Suzanne Lacy is a faculty member at the University of Southern California and a participating artist in TPG’s Autumn 2016 exhibition, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s.

Dominik Czechowski is a London based curator and writer.

 

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